The following is a transcript of Episode 114 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and recording on Thursday, October 20th, 2022.
So we’re recording this episode just about 48 hours after the end of the epic fall Jewish holiday season. I spent my share of time in synagogue over these past three weeks, and if you did too, then my guess is that you encountered, at one point or another, some liturgy or maybe some of your own feelings about your own failings.
It’s a big piece of the plot of Yom Kippur. After all, we literally beat our chests and recite all the times that we’ve fallen short. The truth is, I don’t think Yom Kippur is supposed to make us feel like we’re bad Jews, but sometimes it definitely has that effect.
Or maybe you didn’t make it to synagogue. Maybe you meant to, but didn’t quite get there. Maybe you got there late. Maybe it didn’t even cross your mind. Some of you maybe translated those actions as a different kind of evidence of your own failings. Just to be clear, I’m not telling you that those were failings.
One of the weird things though, about being a visible and public Jew, I walk around with a kippa all the time, is that Jews confess their failings to me all the time. They declare themselves to be bad Jews, maybe out of a sense of embarrassment, or maybe because inevitably we’re gonna compare aspects of our identities to others.
In other words, sometimes we are bad Jews in our own eyes. Sometimes we feel like bad Jews in comparison to others. Actually, it’s kind of been a banner week of sorts for the whole idea of bad Jews in the public conversation, and that’s even before we get to the official release of the book entitled Bad Jews that prompts this week’s episode.
On Sunday, as many Jews, myself included, were preparing for the holiday of Simchat Torah, former President Trump posted on his own social media platform that quote, no president has done more for Israel than I have. Evangelicals are far more appreciative of this than the people of the Jewish faith, especially those living in the United States.” He went on to say that American Jews need to quote, get their act together before it’s too late. It’s an ominous warning, but actually kind of a strange one.
Most times in Jewish history when Jews were threatened by political leaders for their insufficient loyalty, it’s because they were not loyal enough to the leaders themselves. In this case, it seems like Trump was also frustrated by Jewish loyalty to him, or perhaps lack of gratitude to him. But he expresses it by saying that Jews are not as loyal to what in his eyes, should be a clear Jewish cause, that is, the state of Israel.
In other words, to Trump, Jews are not doing what Jews should do. It’s one thing to be angry when an individual doesn’t do what you want them to do. As we know, the former president is not fond of any form of dissent against his policies. But it’s another thing entirely to collectivize a whole community, one in which there is widespread difference of opinion on any matter of issues, and to then accuse them of acting against what you think should be their commitments and values.
Meantime over in Israel, it seems likely now that the Kahanist candidate Itamar Ben Gvir is on the verge of winning at least a dozen seats in the Israeli Knesset elections, and many Jews around the world are on the precipice of something, somewhere between anger, embarrassment, and maybe a little pearl clutching.
We’re gonna do a whole episode on that phenomenon soon, but I’m raising it now because many of us feel that Ben Gvir represents something more than just like a person or a politician we don’t like, that he represents the archetype of a Jew in the world who we wish wasn’t. Tells a story about our tradition and our people that we know exists, that we know is plausible, and that we see as the inverse of our values.
Even those of us who are skeptical about designations like good Jews and bad Jews, like we’re pluralists, after all. Well, we too can be stretched to our limits sometimes. All of this discussion of good Jews and bad Jews is the product of a complicated alchemy of our own complex identities, which can be described sometimes as ethnic and or religious and or political and or cultural and or national.
Each of with each with its own standards and criteria, as well as the fascinating ways in which Jewishness is a public concern in the American context, in ways we’ve never quite seen before. American Judaism is a more radical and fast-moving social experiment than we tend to believe it, and because for most of us, it’s just the context in which we were born and raised.
I’m always grateful for the opportunity to step outside our present reality and to interrogate how we are, show ourselves are showing up in it. The new book on this topic is called Appropriately Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities. Its author, Emily Tamkin is a senior editor at New Statesman and I, I got to meet Emily through a new Hartman program that we launched last year, a seminar and writer’s workshop for journalists that enabled us to spend some time learning and talking together this past summer in Jerusalem.
The book is fascinating because it skirts the line between a dispassionate history, if ever there was such a thing, and a personal reflection on what actually means to be a Jew amidst the political and existential turmoil. That is the question of contemporary American Jewish political identity. So I wanna start there.
Emily, thanks for coming on the show. I wanna start with the personal. Um, there are stories that course throughout this book about your own personal exploration that brought you into writing a book like this. It’s not dissimilar from other things that you’ve worked on in the past, but it does veer into the personal. You speak about your own family, your own choices, your parents, your background. Maybe tell us a little bit about the stories that motivated you to write a book like this, and then we can to the kind of conceptual issues that you’re trying to unpack in the story.
Emily: Well firstly, I just want to say thank you for having me on this podcast. Yehuda was a little um, overly generous to be there when he said that we were like learning together. Yehuda was teaching, I was learning. Uh, so it’s great to be in conversation with you today. And very humbling.
To actually answer your question and stop stalling. I’ve said in a few interviews now, that basically the way this book came about is that I had written this book on George Soros and his influence, and one of the things that I heard a lot is that attacks on him weren’t really Antisemitic because he’s not really Jewish and you look at his relationship to Israel or you look at, he doesn’t go to synagogue, or so on and so forth.
And that this offended me, not just because of Soros, but because of me and because of whatever came up for me right, when hearing that.
And so one of the I had to get over in writing this book was the idea that I wasn’t Jewish enough, that I was the wrong kind of Jew, that I was a bad Jew because of my background or because of, you know, I hadn’t been a Jewish studies major or, or I hadn’t been to Israel before writing the book or this and that.
And ultimately what I realized was that if anybody else said that, I would tell that person, not just that I think that they’re a valid Jewish person, but that I think that that that kind of framework, those kind of litmus tests are really problematic in how we think about Jewish identity.
Somebody wrote recently, like Tamkin admits she’s an imperfect author, and it’s like, No, no. I said that I worried I was an imperfect author and that I rejected that because I don’t think that’s a useful framing. So that’s how I came to write it. In terms of including the personal, two things. It turns out my, my dad joked that we were, he read it, he was like, we’re a walking lab of the American Jewish experiment. Um, so it was useful as a narrative device.
But the other thing is that I’ve joked that another possible title for this book is Stories We Tell Ourselves and Why They’re Incomplete. And it was important to me to write this book as honestly as possible, to show up with my own narratives and look at how they might have been incomplete and changing and, and to be complimented by other competing stories.
Yehuda: I noticed a few times in the book you make reference to what you describe as those who would impeach the Jewishness of others, right? You, because, you know, let’s give a bunch of examples, because you have the wrong politics, because your parent converted in a way that you don’t agree with halakhically because you are intermarried, because of any of these things, someone might describe you as not a Jew. Right. You’re insufficiently Jewish. Can you probe a little bit the difference between being a bad Jew versus not a Jew? Because it feels there’s huge stakes in that, right?
Emily: Absolutely, absolutely. And I think especially politically now, we’re seeing people make the jump from one to the other. It’s not just that I agree with you and I think you’re doing it wrong, It’s, I don’t even think you’re legitimate enough to be having this conversation with me.
So the example that I give in the book of is around the conversation of intermarriage in Israel. There was an op-ed that came out, I believe in 2021, in which the author said, Well, some of these people be halakhically Jewish, but they’re intermarried thus they don’t really care about being Jewish, they don’t really care about Israel, and they’re in the midst a second Holocaust, and thus they’re not really Jewish and we shouldn’t count their opinions on Israel.
This is interesting I think for a few reasons, more than we can enumerate today. As I write in the book, I do understand people who, for religious reasons have trouble accepting certain people as Jews who belong in their shul, right? Like I, I do understand that we all have different halakhic interpretations. We bring the religious rules into our lives in different ways.
But I think when you move that onto the political, basically in order to keep people out of the argument so that you can win the argument, that to me is really problematic. And the other thing that I would say, just to sort of preface this whole debate is that one thing that I came to understand through the writing of the book is that as offensive as it can be to hear that, to hear you’re a bad Jew or you’re, you’re really not Jewish, it’s offensive on an emotional level.
Practically, this has no bearing on my life. You know what I mean? Because I, like, let’s say somebody says that to me or thinks that about I am still, I, I then like go home to my Jewish house and like live my Jewish life and go to my synagogue where nobody’s gonna talk to me like that and will continue on with my day.
So it’s both offensive and also it doesn’t matter, and it only serves to isolate us from one another. We talk so much today about polarization and oh, how do we bridge these divides? Well we’re definitely not going to bridge them if people are telling one another, you don’t even deserve to be across.
Yehuda: Well, so I’m gonna push on that a little bit. It, you’re right, in the introductions of the book, you named that there are two forces at work in this conversation. One is around identity, that is when a person says, I am an American Jew, and another is belonging, I am seen as an American Jew by others.
Yehuda: There’s a third variable though, which is, we might call separation. I’m boundaried from non-Jews. And that basically has, that’s disappeared entirely, right? That’s I think the major identity revolution of American Jews is not that American Jews can assimilate and intermarry in ways that we’ve never been able before.
It’s that we have a surrounding culture that actually facilitates that, that eases it along, wants that to happen as well. There’s no implicit boundary between a Jew and a non-Jew. And you’re right to say that, like what does it matter? Like why, if I can live my own Jewish life based on my own definition and I can find enough other Jews who say, yeah, you’re Jewish enough for us, it really shouldn’t matter.
What it does matter is that the stakes of claiming Jewish identity in public are gonna always be political, right? That’s what’s at play, is who gets to speak on behalf of the Jewish community, and we have a whole bunch of institutions, including a state, that need to use the language of speaking on behalf of a population.
So it’s not that it doesn’t matter and that it’s politicizing this activity. It almost feels as though the need describe the Jewish people collectively is already inherently a political act.
Emily: That is a great point. I completely agree. And I think part of is that there are, I mean, look, there are people in institutions that want to speak for the American Jewish community. One of the questions this book raises is what American Jewish community? Like what are you talking about? I have one American Jewish community. You’re in a different American Jewish community. There are people who are, you know, infinite, and I don’t actually think that that’s so bad. I think as so long as we still recognize one another and respect one another, like, and I think that this is perhaps comfortable for the Hartman listener, that this pluralistic approach is not a bad thing.
I think it is, it is inherently political. I think the line between the religious and political is easily blurred. Um, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. But the other thing that I would say in terms of separation from non-Jews, I mean, you’re right to say there’s no boundary, but also as a reminded all the time politics and by antisemitism, there is. You know, it, it doesn’t matter that a certain synagogue’s not recognized as a synagogue by the more traditionally observant when it’s attacked by an anti-Semite.
And I think in other ways too, there are still dividing lines. We see it in, for example, uh, we can talk about more in sort of the ways the Jewish politics and non-Jewish politics manifest themselves, but I think even assimilated Jews, acculturated as myself, like I still feel distinctly Jewish.
Yehuda: You still feel otherized.
Emily: Yeah, yeah. Or not other, but just, there’s something distinct. I was talking to somebody yesterday who said, and not to keep going back to intermarriage, but he said um, that one of the things that people were worried about was that there wouldn’t be a Jewish anymore. And I said, hear that and I understand that.
But we also know from research that Jews who marry non-Jews, um, want to be more consciously Jewish. Like they want to sort of explore what it means in a less, uh, automatic way. so what you have here is an opportunity to allow that and to encourage that and to foster that and not treat it as something that you’re doing a favor to these people by including them and by accepting them.
Yehuda: Right. It does seem as though the ultimate kind of antidote both to the problem of antisemitism, which is total otherness, as well as to this phenomenon of like our instinct to describe other Jews as not properly Jewish or not Jewish enough. The ultimate antidote to all of that would be normalcy.
Basically eliminating the question of any form of exceptionalism right from the Jewish canon. And just focusing on like, Jews are people who have distinctive food ways, some cultural practices, but nothing on the moral level of being distinct. And the problem is I don’t think anybody actually wants that. I think most Jews don’t really want that.
Emily: Yeah. They don’t.
Yehuda: They do wanna, we do, nobody really would, like, from a religious standpoint to say, you’re gonna eliminate all of the language of having some special purpose with, well now I’ve just lost a whole percentage of the population and even from that feeling of, I wanna be a little different. So we’re kind of stuck inevitably in the, in the need to differentiate between who’s doing this right and who’s doing it wrong.
Emily: Right, oh I think we’re at many impasses. And to be clear, I don’t think people are going to read this book and be like, wow, I’m gonna be like, that’s, yeah,
Yehuda: I’m gonna solve the problem.
Emily: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Um, like that’s it.
But I think I would also just note that when we say like, special moral value, we do all interpret that very differently.
So that even the fact that this idea that to be Jewish means you have a special purpose. You have to have a certain set of morals. You have certain values and you live according to those values. We’re interpreting that very differently.
Emily: And so even though people don’t want to do away with it, it varies lot. And so I agree with you. And I actually don’t think like, you know, Judaism, it does mean something. It’s not, and you can pick and choose from what it means, but there are a set of meetings there to choose from.
And one of this, yes, is this distinctiveness? Um, but I think perhaps it’s more accurate to say these of distinctiveness or these different interpretations of distinctiveness.
Yehuda: Yeah, so I guess what, what that loops us around though to is, if all of us wanna hold on to different understandings of some notion of distinctiveness or exceptionalism, which is a much more loaded word. If all of us wanna hold onto some piece of that, it is gonna inevitably be the consequence that we are gonna have like really strong opinions about which Jews are doing right in the world and which Jews are doing wrong.
So you’re not gonna get rid of the terminology of good Jews and bad Jews, but it sounds like you want to have some better way of executing that.
Emily: Yeah, I guess, here’s what I, here’s what I try to say in the book. It’s not about being a good Jew or a bad Jew. It’s about, basically what bothers me is when people call the authenticity or the legitimacy of the Jewish interpretation into question.
Because I can look at Ben Gvir and say, those are Jewish values. They’re not my Jewish values. But that is Jewishness. That is Judaism. I can look at Ben Shapiro with whom I disagree on everything and say, sure I’ll grant you that. That’s Jewish. And I’m not even going to say that you’re being Jewish in a bad way.
I think that you are using your platform for ill, I think that you are wrong, but I can sit here and we can sort of have that debate or not, but we can, I can acknowledge that that’s legitimate and authentic and I can do that without feeling my own Jewishness and Judaism is threatened.
That’s, I think, what I’m encouraging people to do. Do I think that people will go along with that? Not really, but, but you know, how I found it is useful in my own, I think since writing this book, I hope that some people have this experience after reading it.
One, I’m more comfortable sitting with these sort of differences within Jewish communities. I’m less tempted to sort of be like, Oh, that’s shanda. And I think I do it to myself less as well. I still catch myself doing it, but, you know, to give you one example, at Shalom Hartman in Jerusalem, we had this Shabbat dinner. Many of the people, we were sort telling our Jewish stories, most of the people around the table were raised with more religious observant than I was.
And I felt, you know, I felt insufficient sitting around the table. I went home and like was back to the hotel and was like very sad, cried, and I realized the next day that nobody actually at that table had made me feel less than at all. There had been other moments in my life by other people who had but I, in holding onto those actually not only doing it to myself, but taking an opportunity for connection with other Jewish people from myself.
And so I think that is also what I would encourage people to let go of. That shame. That tendency to, of course you’re going to disagree with people. I’m not telling everybody to hold hands and sing and stop arguing. I would never tell Jews to stop arguing. But that tendency to reach first for shame at this point in our political moment, to strip people of their legitimacy, their authenticity, and also the tendency to do it to yourself, that I would really encourage people to let go of. Like forget it’s not nice. It’s not politically productive. It’s not discursively productive.
Yehuda: Yeah, I think, I wanted to lean into that last comment, it’s not productive cause if you view other Jews in the world and their actions as wrong or bad, and then you compliment that with thinking that your own Jewishness is inauthentic, you can’t really mobilize against those things that you consider to be wrong or bad. Right, you’re disincentivized from standing up and saying, no, my Jewishness comes with some, you know, the problematic word is authenticity.
So let me go back to something you said earlier, which is, okay, so let’s say that’s a vision for Jewish life in America, which is a certain type of pluralism. It’s not total value pluralism because you’re not saying, I think all forms of Judaism are legitimate. Or equally legitimate. I might say, I have mine, but I can understand where someone else comes from and I don’t need to de-legitimize you. And I don’t need de-legitimize myself.
But I’m wondering about what happens to some notion of community. You said, kind of in passing earlier, so maybe we won’t have institutions that can speak on behalf of a Jewish community. What’s lost when that happens? And is that ultimately good for Jews in the long run?
Emily: I think we’re in this very interesting moment right now, because on the one hand we have these institutions that I think are, they’re, they’re not in crisis, but they’re in a moment of transition. But on the other hand, and something that I didn’t fully appreciate until I went and reported this book out, you have people building new institutions and new organizations where you actually have pluralism that I think, and not just pluralism, but like meetings that I think are missed, if you just take the, the birds-eye view.
So for example, I didn’t know how many queer egalitarian spaces had been coming up because there are young queer American Jews who are really interested in the teachings of orthodoxy, but don’t feel themselves welcome for a host of reasons in the pre-existing institutions.
I think we’ll continue to see that. We’ll continue to see people building new spaces. Do I think that something is lost if these institutions that claim to speak for American Jews, that they go away? Sure. I think some of that, what is lost, will be bad. Um, you know, we have these big spaces where we can all meet and come together.
I think some of what’s lost honestly will not be so bad. I think some of these institutions have claimed to speak for American Jews. I was thinking about this today. I don’t mean to like speak for everyone here and I don’t want to like name names.
There are some people, some American Jews, who claim the position of leadership for American Jews and then turn around and speak about the majority of American Jews with condescension and at worst contempt. So why do you wanna be leading us anyway? Right, like, what’s really lost if we let go of that?
Now, I think there will still be institutions. I hope that in the future these institutions kind of reckon with this moment that they’re in and, and wonder what perhaps they might have done differently, and not just now, but I part of the reason that I wanted to write a history book is that there’s a tendency to be like, Oh, this moment is so polarizing, this moment we’re all in crisis. We’re not talking to each other.
That’s been true in various ways for the last century. And things yes, will change, but they’ve also been changing, you know, the American Jewish Committee, AJC, started out as not Zionist. So I think we’re always in a process of evolution and transformation and change.
Yehuda: Right. I guess, yeah, I, I think I’m sympathetic to that, but with the caveat that like we’ve toggled as a people between the collectivist impulse and the tribal impulse, right? So we’re in a tribal moment. Tribal moments are actually born of relative safety and security. Once you actually don’t need to be collectivized quite the same way, you can go back to your tribe.
So whether that’s sects in the first century, or denominations in the 18th and 19th, or whatever it is that we have now among American Jews, we’re in that impulse. And I guess I see all of the value for it, especially like when you describe affinity organizations. Wow, this group of people finally found the other required minimum number of Jews with whom they can make community. I think that’s like incredible. It needs to be celebrated.
I don’t feel it all nostalgic for like the big box Judaism of the 1950s. Big box in the sense of big synagogues, big movements. I don’t think that that was great. I think it’s suppressed a lot of dissent, all of those things. But I do worry that you can err too far on the side of the tribal and one of the consequences is discourse, how we treat other Jews, and maybe the possibility of any sort of collective mobilization on issues of concern even before it gets, kind of, too late.
Emily: Yeah, I do wonder, I mean, when we talk about antisemitism, I sometimes feel like I’m having a completely different conversation from some other American Jews. I do think about this, how do we mobilize against antisemitism, which I am on record as saying, and surveys suggest that most American Jews are on record as saying they feel comes more from the American right, not exclusively, but mostly, you have very prominent Jews saying there’s nothing wrong with what Donald Trump said, right? Like how do you mobilize against hatred when you interpret those hatreds that hatred so differently?
And the other thing we’ve talked about this before, but pluralism is a real paradox, right? Because it means that I must accept people who will never accept me, which is also difficult you know, it’s, it’s one thing to say it intellectually and to believe it intellectually, but it’s another to act on it.
And I recognize that, like, yes, I think you’re right. I think it makes group mobilization more difficult. But also are we all mobilizing together now? Like we’re not.
Yehuda: Right. No, no, no, no. It’s not like we were really effectively in the past. I dunno. It feels risky to me. Anyway, let me, let me shift gears to a little bit. I do wanna talk a little bit about intermarriage because it kind of, it kind of courses through this book. And it is in some ways the big story of American Jews of the past a hundred years, even those who have been upset about the way that American Jews have foregrounded the story, kind of have to kind of concede that that’s the major transformation of American Jewish life is the transformation of the Jewish individual and the transformation of the Jewish family in America.
You described this story with respect to your own family at one point, and as you said even earlier in this show, you are sympathetic to, even if you don’t agree with that, someone may have a different understanding of Jewish law. Therefore, consider X behavior to be problematic. You can understand that, but you don’t like it’s use for political context.
What I’m trying to wrap my head around is that normativity in general is like a normal aspect of a boundary community. do this, not that. That is a T or, and in some cases, if you do this, you have crossed a certain threshold of what we might call intolerable deviance, and that’s a very, very hard category for liberal Jews to wrap their head around such that it becomes not, well, some Jews think this is okay. Some Jews not. Some Jews think it’s the worst thing.
And other Jews then kind of like with a horseshoe effect will insist that like, Jews, like intermarriage is just a, is not just a feature of Jewish life. It is like a characteristic. How, how, are liberal Jews meant to operate around a Jewish community where there are a lot of Jews who just, it’s not that they’re trying to ex like exploit their concern about intermarriage for political gain, but actually think that it’s wrong?
Emily: Um, I;m so glad that you acknowledged that this is a major story in American Jewish life for the past century. Tthere have been a couple of like pieces that where it’s like Tamkin is clearly like Animated by intermarriage. Tamkin’s animated by intermarriage? Like, have you, like
Yehuda: The Jews are. Yeah.
Emily: Go read the last history of your, of your people.
I think, look, I do think that to a certain extent Jewish institutions were really invested in making this a top-down concern over the course of the 20th century, and I think we can’t separate like angst and agita from that.
On the other hand, I acknowledge like, look, my Nana was not happy about intermarriage. Um, and I write about this in, in the book, had to like come to terms with it for my own parents. Well, what I would say to American Jews who think it’s really wrong is, um, it’s not going away. It’s not. So you have a choice.
Which is that you can think that a majority of young American Jews getting married are bad and are doing something that crosses some unalterable line. Cause it’s not that I don’t understand that there’s a tradition, it’s just that I also understand that traditions always change and lines change and boundaries change. And they have in Judaism and Jewishness, and particularly in Jewishness in this country.
When you have a majority of people in the last 10 years who identify as American Jews are marrying people who are not Jewish. We also know from surveys if people are like, we’re worried about, there won’t be any more Jews. That in absolute terms, the same amount of people are raising their children as Jewish. Not the same percentage, but the same number.
We also know as I said earlier, often the person, the Jewish person who is married to a non-Jewish person becomes more in Judaism and in a more active way, a less inherited, more sought out way. So if Judaism is to be a search for finding the noble and the holy in the everyday, this is an opportunity for a lot of people to do that. And you can be accepting of that, or you cannot. I can’t make you be accepting of it.
But look, my synagogue on Yom Kippur had the partners of Jewish people stand up and said, We’re so happy you’re here. You’re a part of the family. We’re so happy for all you do. My husband was standing up next to me. That’s why we go to that synagogue.
So if you’re an American Jewish institution and you’re concerned about this, that synagogue was full. Like I really don’t know what to tell people who are still in 2022 think that this is going to reverse itself. Traditions change all the time. Rules change all the time. Groups change all the time. That has always happened.
Yehuda: Yeah. So just to be clear, on a public policy level, I obviously agree with everything you just said. What I’m trying to probe is something, and by the way, this is now 30-year-old data from the first federation in North America that took an approach of being welcoming to intermarried families and saw a massive uptick in the number of kids who were being raised Jewish.
Like, okay, yes, no surprise. If you’re actually welcoming to people, and you don’t judge their choices all the time, they may actually want to be apart of you.
Emily: But, and you’re asking, and you’re saying, what about people, like in their hearts, like they cannot accept this, is that? Yeah.
Yehuda: Yeah, and it’s more than that. It’s also like a leadership question. So, Jewish leaders have always had to dance between, is it my job to hold the Jewish people accountable to what I think they’re supposed to be doing? Or is it to acknowledge that they’re doing something that I don’t think they should be doing, but that I’m still accountable and responsible to them?
And any leadership metaphor is gonna be like, if you’re a kind of leader who’s out in front trying to take your people where they’re supposed to go, you may periodically turn behind you and notice that nobody’s following you anymore.
So that’s always been a dance. And like rabbinic tradition is like full of these examples of, we think we’re Jews should be doing this, but actually they’re not. So we’re gonna change Jewish law to accommodate them. And I think that’s an exciting place to kind of locate this conversation.
But there are going to be a lot of Jews who feel like I would be, I would sooner accept a smaller, tighter, normatively bound Jewish community, then be forced to kind of accept that. The violations of Jewish law are something that I simply can’t get my head around.
Emily: And I mean this very respectfully to these people, and I’m not telling them that have to marry Jewish people. I’m not even telling them that they have to accept us into synagogues. But what I am telling you is that there are going to continue to be people who identify as Jews and who claim Jewishness are not married to Jewish people, and they’re going to have kids. And a lot of us are going to raise those kids Jewish and they’re going to consider that they’re Jews.
So I want you to feel welcome and respected in your community, but I’m not going to do it at the expense of myself. I’m sorry.
Yehuda: You’re not only saying that. You’re also saying, I’m not only not gonna do it at my expense of my own identity, but in order to actually be able to build a robust Jewish identity, I have to think of my own identity outside of the boundaries of the norms that you’re creating.
That goes back to your point earlier about like, I have to feel good about what I’m doing Jewishly.
Emily: Exactly. And I, I don’t know what else to say. You know, like
Yehuda: What else to say. Yeah.
Emily: It’s not going away. So we’ve reached impasse. If that is truly an impasse that you, a person cannot get over in conversation with me. Okay.
Yehuda: Yeah. My colleague at Hartman Shaul Magid has his book called, I think it’s called American Post Judaism. Anyway, one of the things he argues in the book which I love, I probably have quoted on this podcast before, is he says American Jews are anxious about whether they’re gonna have a future.
He said, in the future there will be American Jews. It’s just totally not gonna be the same Judaism that there is today. And I love that line it’s a total Rorshach test. Some people will look at that and it kind of like you’re describing like, yes, just kind of lean into the entropy. It’s just gonna be different.
Emily: I know, they freak out,
Yehuda: And other people read that sentence and they’re like, that’s their nightmare.
Emily: But I guess what I want to say, is that even when you try to hold things, right, keep them as they are, that in and of itself forces a change.
Yehuda: Say more about that. What do you mean? Yeah.
Emily: Because if you try to keep things and the world around you is changing, your relationship to the world around you has necessarily changed. Nothing is ever frozen in time. Everything is changing. Even the act of trying to stop change can be part of the transformation.
So, yes, of course they’ll be different than the present. And the present is different than the fifties, which is different than the early 20th century, which is different than the 1700s.And personally there are changes that I think have been good in there and changes I think have not been not so good in there. But it’s gonna happen.
Yehuda: You know, the, one of the most interesting quotes that you in the book was from a previous guest on this podcast, Mordechai Lightstone, who’s the kind of the Chabad Shaliach to the internet. And one of the things that he says, which I thought was very powerful, was he said, no, it’s not like you have two extremes in Jewish life. Basically orthodox slash Chabad and liberal Jews.
He says, actually, Jewish identity is becoming intersectional, right? Here’s where, I have Shabbat dinner at the Chabad, but then this is what I do another time and this is where I give my philanthropy. And part of me was like, oh, that’s interesting. Intersectional language.
There was another part of me that was like, oh what he’s is describing is basically market capitalism. Meaning there’s a whole bunch of offerings that are available Jewishly, and it’s no surprise that American Jewish identity is essentially evolving into a market based capitalist infrastructure. Choose this or choose that.
Emily: I saw it more. Okay. Maybe this was naive of me. I saw it more as different opportunities to reach different sorts of people who maybe you didn’t have that before. We talk all about like, the 1950s and everyone went to the same synagogue and everyone understood Israel in the same way.
You were in touch with your own community. Unless you were one of the American Jews who was like going to conferences, et cetera. Were you really stepping outside your own community? Maybe not in the same way. Maybe you weren’t meeting as many people who are different from you, as you have the opportunity to do today, if you choose to take it.
But I will not disallow that perhaps there’s a capitalist impulse behind it as well, which for better or for worse is part of the American Jewish story, too.
Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, it’s basically radical individuation as part of identity. Like I’ve atomized my identity as the person who makes my own choices, and I want other people to affirm that. For instance, the only way in which this narrative actually has changed for American Jews about intermarriage even in the past 20 years, is because you just have a critical mass of people and the, the only difference between someone who Jewish history will call a false Messiah versus a person who Jewish history will call a change agent, is are there enough people who are willing to follow you?
Emily: But isn’t that interesting, because even in this hyperindividual moment that you’re describing, the thing that makes it real is community.
Yehuda: Is numbers. Right.
Emily: Yeah. And so I think like people are like, Oh, it’s going to be so isolated and we’re all just individuals and there is no community. It’s like we just said that it became real through community. Right? So clearly we haven’t totally lost it.
Yehuda: That’s right. There’s one other piece on the intermarriage thing, and then I’ll move to something else, and this is where I really, I, I disagreed with something was in the book and I wanna push on it, which was you said, and I’m quoting in the, one of the chapters around intermarriage, focus on intermarriage in American Jewish Life has been carefully cultivated, not only, or even primarily by rabbis and mohels. I like that, that you threw in Mohels.
But by philanthropists and social scientists. And there you say you have no sympathy for the social and the political and in a different part of the book, you kind of locate the intermarriage focus on Steven M. Cohen sociologist who was publicly, uh, kind of discredited partly cause of his own personal behavior accusations, um, and allegations of sexual violence, uh, which he acknowledged.
I felt like there was a little bit of this that was personalized to a particular individual who I agree is a very powerful individual in terms of shaping communal norms. But it was kind of a like, least credible version.
Emily: Like it was Aha. It’s all him. No, I, I didn’t mean to say that.
Yehuda: Right, it’s like a least credible version of what a legitimate criticism is actually about.
Emily: Yeah, yeah yeah. My straw man. I think what I actually am trying to say, uh, not that it’s just him, but that this wasn’t just religiously motivated, this was socially motivated as well, by philanthropists, by social scientists, many of whom were men.
And that, you know, I didn’t invent this. This is coming from women who work in Jewish studies who have made this case that I find quite compelling, which is that to extent, part of this conversation has been about control, about controlling Jewish women and who we marry and how many children we have. And making Jewish women who don’t do that feel badly and feel like they’ve failed their own community.
Yehuda: Okay, so, so let me parse the difference here. The difference between making people feel bad, bad. But why is social control fundamentally different than religious control? If a secular Jew has a theory about Jewish continuity, which is rooted in Jews, should marry other Jews, because that helps us to preserve our cultural distinctiveness, whatever, our institutions, et cetera.
Why is that inherently different from someone who appeals to a religious commitment?
Emily: I guess it’s not different. They’re both about power. I think what I’m saying is I have more sympathy for the religious, I can understand this is a passed down tradition. This is something that you consider sacred. It’s still about power and control, but, but I, I, I just have more patience for that than I do for with leaders who are trying to find power and control, and doing it in the way that I think has really hurt people.
So that’s the distinction that I draw. I think it’s bad for religious leaders do it too. I just have more sympathy for where they’re coming from than I do where a sociologist is coming from.
Yehuda: Yeah. My colleague, Mihal Bitton, wrote a piece on this a couple years ago for us on, I think it was called “Is Jewish Continuity Sexist?” And it tried to argue, can you make a normative sociological claim that is not necessarily attached to either sexist motivations or sexist behaviors? And we’ll let our readers ultimately decide.
Emily: Yeah, and I, I, I just wanna say, I’m not saying that it has to be in a vacuum inherently sexist. I’m just saying that here in the country, the way in which it transpired, yes, turned out to have some sexist undertones. Exactly.
Yehuda: Right. It certainly is experienced that way, whether or not we have to interrogate the motivations. There was something kind of coursing throughout the book that I wanted to ask you about also, which is, You know, one of the things that’s kind of been driving me crazy in the last few years is not the bad Jew problem, but it’s the good Jew problem.
Which is the way that some Jews try to show up to appear to others to be the good Jews. I will say maybe I’m wrong about this. I tend to see this more on the Jewish left. Especially around occupation. Where it’s like we’re gonna show up and say things like when someone holds up a sign that says, not in my name or, right, not my Judaism. What they’re trying to basically say is, I represent the good version of the Jew as opposed to the politics of a Jew elsewhere.
I’m wondering if you see those thing as linked, cause I tend to feel more irritated by the good Jew phenomenon than the bad Jew phenomenon. Bad Jew phenomenon is normal. Everybody thinks that they’re better than other people. It’s the it’s when you actually show up and declare yourself better, it’s kind of ick.
Emily: Yeah, yeah, so I will say, just specifically on the point of Israel and the occupation, I will push back and say, you know, there was some article, I forget where that was like, young Jews are breaking with Israel because they want social acceptance. And I was kind of like, I don’t know. I feel like, feel like maybe they feel, they feel called to say something themselves.
The reality is that there is a state that is Jewish that is saying things on behalf of world Jews and perhaps they feel called to speak out against that. I’m not bothered by that. Now, what I will say is that I think when people say, far right extremists. That’s not Judaism. Or Stephen Miller. That’s not Judaism, That’s not Jewish. Of course it is. There are things that I think of as bad in Judaism, in Jewishness, as well as the good, both in the tradition and in the way that acted out.
Like the book could have been called Good Jews, Bad Jews, right, it’s the other side of the same coin. And ultimately brings you to the same place.
Yehuda: Yeah, And ultimately a lot of that stuff actually gets negotiated through non-Jews in intersectional political contexts. Or like my colleagues, Yossie Klein Halevi and Abdullah Antepli, wrote about this a few years ago when Brandeis had issued an invitation to Ayaan Hirsi Ali to speak at commencement, I think, and then rescinded it, because the Muslim students were like outraged that someone who is, constant outspoken critic in non-Muslim contexts about Islam was kind of put on stage to be a good Muslim.
And they, like Yossi and Abdullah argued, which is very subtle, is stop trying to use the outliers of other people’s faiths to be your exemplar of what you want the other faith to be. But it’s kind of, it’s kind of inevitable that the, again, the more that we individuate and move out of just our parochial context as Jews that we are gonna be looking for some validation in the eyes of others of like, this a Jew should do, versus this is what a a Jew shouldn’t do.
Emily: Yeah, I mean, I think, the answer’s not there either, right? Like you’re definitely not gonna solve who’s a good Jew and who’s a bad Jew through American politics. Like, sorry, that way more polarization and uh, argument lies. Epecially in a country that’s not at all majority Jewish.
Of course, and it’s as polarized as the United States, like are large parts of this country where maybe people know one Jew. And so that’s what Jewish people are to them. I don’t have an answer to that either, other than the fact that I think it’s important that when we go into these spaces, I really don’t like being called a Jewish thought leader. I am not leading people’s thinking.
You should not speak to me or read this book as representative of the Jews like TM at all. This is a history of American Jewish politics and identity. It is not the history. Somebody yesterday was talking to me and was like, I was arguing with you as I was reading it. I loved that.
I think any one of us, whether we want to believe that it’s come to this individual moment or not, we all bring the personal to this. It’s identity, it’s necessarily personal. And it’s just, I think important not to pretend that, both not to let other people speak for us and not to pretend that we’re speaking for others.
Yehuda: Look, I, I think the thing that’s thrilling about a work like this, and I feel this as a Jewish educator, is that you’re basically publicly negotiating your own questions of identity. Not in a naval gazey or narcissistic kind of way. You’re actually trying to say, I live at a particular moment in history and here’s how I think we came to this moment.
And I like the idea that someone would read this and say, okay, now I actually have to do this similar project for myself. Not only disagree with Emily about this or that, but actually to say, well, what ways did my own family’s choices or my own choices reflect similar negotiations or different ones with the same kind of value systems that are at play. There’s a certain pedagogy to that.
Emily: Mm. Yeah. Someone wrote, in a sort of disappointed way that she wanted there to be like a new framework for thinking about who is a bad Jew. And actually it seemed like, I was looking at how we all searched to be good Jews, and I was kind of like, yes.
Yehuda: Yes, success,
Emily: You know,, like I, I am not interested in giving like here at the end story, the bad Jews, like the credits role, you know, in all the different names come down. That is not, that is not what this is meant to be. This is an invitation to read a certain number of narratives and rethink them and challenge them and add your own.
Yehuda: Yeah, I mean I’m not gonna say I wasn’t a little disappointed that there wasn’t like a David Letterman list at the end. Okay, here are, here are the 10 worst Jews.
Emily: Here are the ones I really don’t like.
Yehuda: On that, by the way, it, you know, you make reference to Madoff and other kind of financial criminals and others, and it’s very clear that you’re struggling with how to write about them publicly.
As you say, you can’t. . You don’t want them to be collectivized. You don’t want that to be the story of Jews. It happens all the time, right? Jews are people who commit financial crimes. On the other hand, you can’t not talk about. I thought that was kind of an ironic thing to actually be talking about how hard it is to talk about it. I wonder if you were anxious about writing about Madoff or Soros as a player in this.
Emily: Oh, of course, Yeah, yeah, No, of course, I don’t want, there’s a certain line of criticism of this book, which is that this is the wrong time to have a book called Bad Jews. This I think is ridiculous. Like, I’m sorry. I think it’s completely disingenuous. It’s bad faith, it’s fake outrage.
At this moment where there’s perceived rise of antisemitism and we’re yelling at each other about who is good and bad. No, I’m sorry. I think it’s the appropriate time. I’m not worried about antisemites being like, wow, through this story of American Jewish history and all its richness and complexity, like I’ve really been called to action, not concerned about that.
I am always concerned talking about Jews and money because it is such a stereotype, because it’s such a compelling trope to people. And it was important to me that I do it really carefully. Having said all of that, the most useful thing in that chapter, I think is what Lila Corman Berman says and is quoted as saying in the book, which is, if you are to be afraid of this, to be afraid of talking about this for fear that people will say, oh, Jews and money. That’s to make a very real mistake that I think people do a lot, which is that antisemitism is about Jews.
I mean it’s about us, but it’s not, it’s actually controlled by Jewish or speech. It’s about antisemites and their hate and their conspiracies, and so, ultimately, you cannot tell the story of American Jews without talking about capitalism and finance and labor movements and workers’ rights.
Like all of that needs to be included. And I can’t not include it, like if that person is going to be motivated to be more antisemitic, that had nothing to do with what I, with what I wrote. That person already had their own, had their own thoughts about Jews and finance.
Yehuda: Right. And I guess the other side of that is if you never talk about what Jews that’s wrong. We can’t be part of a solution to get Jews to do things that are right. And that ultimately is worse for us, even if it also has ramifications for us, someone might take our stuff out of context.
Okay. So I, I appreciate that. I think I understand what’s happening with the book educationally, what kind of modeling you wanna create, what you would want other people to do with this. I’ll put you on the spot for the last question. You’ve been generous with your time, as I’m sure you have a lot of media requests.
If you could make one public policy recommendation for the Jewish community around questions of Jewish identity,that emerge from your own experience, from your own narration of this history, what might it be?
Emily: Um. That’s a great question question. The first is that I think Jewish education should be more accessible. And also more, more ambitious. I think right now a very small percentage of American Jews actuaslly have full Jewish education, certainly, and I’m a big proponent in public education, like, I’m not saying send all your kids to Jewish day school.
But I think that more access to this knowledge, to these stories, to Jewishness should be more accessible to more people.
And then the other one, it’s not a public policy recommendation, but like even jokingly, stop calling yourselves bad Jews. That’s it.
Yehuda: Mmhm. Well, let that be a warning to all of you. You can say you’re not a thought leader, but if you come onto the Identity Crisis Podcast, you may be put on the spot to say things as a form of thought leadership.
Well, thank you Emily Tamkin for being on the show today. The book, Bad Jews, published by Harper, available everywhere.
Emily: Thank you so much, Yehuda.
Yehuda: And thanks all of you for listening to our show.
Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman, was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choi at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.
Transcripts of our show are now available on the website, typically about a week after episode airs. To find them to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute can visit us online shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you want us to hear about, a book you want us to read, or if you have comments on this episode, please write to us at [email protected]
You can rate and review the show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to the show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.